Fifteen years after John Major turned polys into 'new universities', the diversity that grew out of that change is breeding success. Tony Tysome, who reported on the reforms at the time, takes stock
It has been described as both the best and the worst thing to happen to British higher education.
Though some still criticise the decision to allow the former polytechnics to become "new" universities 15 years ago, most now generally accept that it was the right move and that it has helped the sector respond to 21st-century challenges.
"You could say that the higher education agenda is now the former poly agenda - and I would say that is a very good thing," said Leslie Wagner, the former vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University who was, in 1992, director of the Polytechnic of North London.
"If you look at the main policy drivers of teaching and learning, access and skills, these are the former polytechnic agendas."
A major change focused on breaking down elitist barriers, widening university participation and focusing on higher vocational skills might sound like an idea from a leftwing think-tank. But it was a Conservative Government that ushered in the 1991 White Paper Higher Education: A New Framework that wrought such dramatic changes in the following year. How?
According to Peter Knight, recently retired vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, "When John Major got elected he put a note around the education department saying that he wanted a piece of legislation that would be both popular and cheap. Someone in the department suggested that you could always end the binary divide in higher education. Mr Major didn't go to university, so he had none of the snobbery values that might have put him off the idea."
The Act opened the way for 30 new universities to be created.
Some polytechnic directors were initially against taking a university title.
Professor Wagner said: "I felt we should capitalise on the polytechnic brand that we had built up over the previous 20 years. But when it became clear that a significant number of poly directors did not value the brand, there was no point in arguing for it."
Some former poly leaders, such as Michael Goldstein, who was director of Coventry Polytechnic at the time, felt that it should be business as usual despite the name change.
He recalled: "Our first marketing campaign as a university used a slogan like 'A change in name, but not in style. We are still the same inside'."
But most former polys used their new university status as a springboard to emulate the traditional universities by moving into research.
This was exactly what some had feared. Roger Brown, the recently retired vice chancellor of Southampton Solent University, who in 1992 was the chief executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, said: "It was not just heads of institutions, it was also their academic staff who were pushing for more money to be invested in research. Certain former polys immediately bought into the old university values - in some cases with disastrous results.
"This was symbolised in the way in which the old poly directors rushed to join the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK). I think it would have been much better to have started with a completely new organisation to recognise that what we were doing was creating a new sector."
Nevertheless, even now that the newer universities are being discouraged from pursuing research by an ever greater concentration of funding, Professor Brown feels that the greater diversity that grew out of the creation of the universities was a success. It allowed them to "reach parts of the system that other institutions did not reach".
The pioneering nature of the new universities made them the perfect vehicle for rapid expansion. Student numbers in the former polys almost doubled in the five years between 1988 and 1993 and continued to rise rapidly thereafter. The downside was that this also dramatically drove student-to-staff ratios up and the unit of funding down.
Neil Williamson is a member of the University and College Union national executive who has witnessed rapid changes at De Montfort University, where he has been a lecturer since it dropped the title of Leicester Polytechnic. He said the impact on staff has inevitably been higher workloads and more work related stress.
"This has not been helped by the fact that the new universities have tended to adopt a more managerial approach to governance than the old universities, and there have been some glaring examples of bad practice."
But it is also this approach, some argue, that has allowed the new universities to respond rapidly to changes in government policy and the higher education market.
New universities are using their flexibility to embrace changes such as the emergence of a fee-based market for student recruitment, increasing selectivity in research funding and the Leitch agenda to increase the number of people gaining higher-level skills by several million by 2020.
According to lobby group Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, it is this skills drive in particular that places post-1992 universities at the heart of the sector.
Pam Tatlow, CMU chief executive, said: "Our member institutions have always been responsive to the market and the need for new skills."
But Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, fears that despite their resilience some new universities will struggle in the emerging market. "Although I don't foresee any institutions going bust, I think we are in for a time of significant turbulence," he said.
Pamela Taylor, principal of Newman College of Higher Education and chair of GuildHE, whose members include the latest institutions to gain university status in the past few years, predicts that new universities will form into new clusters of institutions with common characteristics, specialisms and missions.
Patricia Ambrose, former GuildHE chief executive, agrees that new gaps are likely to open between different types of institution.
"It will be more complex than a binary divide. We could see a range of different types of institutions that generate income in different ways," she said.
Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, put it more bluntly.
"The new universities are ducking and diving," he said. "Given that they cannot count on getting a huge amount of research money, they are fighting for anything they can get and pushing themselves in all kinds of directions."
Where this will lead could take another 15 years to become clear.
- 'John Major didn't go to university, so he had none of the snobbery'
Peter Knight, former vice-chancellor of the University of Central England
- 'Certain former polys bought into the old university values, in some cases with disastrous results'
Roger Brown, who was head of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics in 1992
- 'The new universities are ducking and diving... they are out there fighting for anything they can get'
Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education
- 'Although I don't foresee any institutions going bust, I think we are in for a time of significant turbulence'
Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire
- 'You could say that the higher education agenda is now the former poly agenda'
Leslie Wagner, former vice-chancellor, Leeds Metropolitan University
Runaway success: media studies overcomes 'mickey mouse' tag
If there is one subject whose growth has been most closely tied to the expansion of new universities, it must be media studies.
Dogged for years with a reputation for being the mother of all Mickey Mouse subjects, the discipline has gained a respectable status of late, having disproved many of the arguments of its critics - most notably with much better-than-average graduate employment rates. It could be said that its evolution echoes the development of new universities themselves.
Data from the Higher Education Academy's subject centre for art, design and media show that from 1997 to 2006 the number of full-time media studies undergraduates rocketed by 344 per cent.
The analysis also shows that it is predominantly new universities, most notably Thames Valley University, Southampton Solent University and Bournemouth University, that are responsible for this growth, although there are now media studies students in most of the UK's higher education institutions.
Christine Geraghty, professor of film and TV studies at Glasgow University and chair of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association, said: "There were spaces in the former polys that made it possible for people who wanted to do new work to get on with it without having to have a huge infrastructure. It was a new subject, so the work could be done by individuals who had a passion for it and were based in quite small departments."
David Clews, manager of the subject centre, said: "There is no question that there was an element of getting bums on seats, since we were moving to a mass higher education system. To some extent, institutions took the path of least resistance by developing subjects that were cheapest and easiest to grow."
But he added: "Institutions were not just cynically filling courses. They were aware that in order to survive there had to be some quality in what they were delivering."
Oxford Brookes: giving the traditionals a run for their money
Oxford Brookes University stands as an example of how difficult it is to typecast new univer-sities.
It is one of a number of former polytechnics that have aimed, with considerable success, to occupy ground more usually associated with the traditional universities.
Both its former and current vice-chancellors have been clear that going after research ratings and grants is an appropriate ambition.
Former vice-chancellor Sir Clive Booth, who saw Oxford Brookes through the transition from a polytechnic, said: "I was never a believer in the idea that we had a hugely different mission from the universities or the idea that polys were vocational and universities were non-vocational.
"What you have now is a very fluid situation where in some old universities you have departments that do not have a spectacular research record, whereas in some new universities you have departments that have top-notch ratings."
In the 2001 research assessment exercise, Brookes' history department scored the top grade - five-star - beating its mighty neighbour Oxford University in this subject. League tables this year also place Brookes ahead of several "old" universities, on a number of criteria.
This success has been reflected in student numbers, which almost doubled from 10,000 in 1992 to 19,000 in 2006, and in a near-tripling of turnover to Pounds 124 million in the same period.
Vice-chancellor Graham Upton, who retired this week, said: "We are situated in a small city that has only one or two big employers. If we had gone for the same agenda as many inner-city new universities, taking in large numbers of second-chance part-time students and going after third-leg funding, we would have failed.
"Our success is down to having a clear vision that we have stuck to and not being blown off course by the vagaries of changing government policy."